Monday, 22 October 2012

Reflections on fear

I've been writing a lot about fear recently, because it seems to me that much of what is happening in the world at the moment is driven by fear.

There is nothing new about this. Fear has been a primary driver of human activity for a very, very long time. In fact I would say that humans are innately a fear-driven species.

I know this seems odd, because we think of ourselves as successful, the dominant species on Planet Earth with no natural predators left. And indeed we are - now. But we have not always been so.

We think of ourselves as predators. And indeed, humans in groups are the most dangerous predators ever to walk the face of the earth. But at an individual level, humans are not particularly good predators: we are small, weak, slow and poorly armed. Nor do individual humans need to be large-scale predators. We are omnivores, not true carnivores: we are capable of gaining sustenance from an extraordinarily large range of foods, including - but most definitely not limited to - meat. An individual human living off the land does not need to kill large prey: he or she can live quite satisfactorily off small kills and foraging. For much of human history, humans have not been predators, or at least not on a large scale. No, for much of human history, humans have been PREY. And it is our history as prey that gives us our fear driver - and, in my opinion, our tendency to herd together in groups.

Fear is an essential survival characteristic of animals that are naturally prey. It is fear that gives them sensitivity to danger, and fear that enables them to react quickly and appropriately to threats. The classic "fight or flight" response to fear is an automatic reaction to a perceived threat: it suspends ordinary thinking processes and replaces them with a conditioned response depending on the nature of the threat, namely to run away or counter-attack. There is also a third response, which is more common in humans than I think people realise: that is the "freeze" response, where the individual under threat keeps very still and silent, even stopping breathing, in the hope that the predator will not realise they are there. Given that humans are not fast runners compared to their natural predators, and are (in their natural state) poorly armed, it would not surprise me to find that "freeze" is the most common human response to threat.

All this of course harks back to a time before there was human society, before there were weapons, before humans became significant predators. It seems likely to me that human society formed in the first instance when people started banding together to defend themselves against predators: leaders of these protective  groups would naturally be the biggest and strongest individuals, or possibly the most cunning individuals (after all, intelligence is a survival characteristic....). When weapons were invented, I suspect they were used in the first instance for defence, not for hunting. Hunting perhaps started when groups of armed humans realised they could seek out, attack and kill predators, thereby securing a territory, instead of waiting for the predator to attack. It is only a short step from groups of armed humans hunting down and killing predators to groups of armed humans hunting down and killing large herbivores for food. In both cases, the animal hunted would be much larger and more dangerous than anything an individual human could take on. Forming into groups both provided protection from predators and provided access to a wider range of food. To this day, we regard the primary purpose of a government as being to "secure the borders" - i.e. protect the group from predators. But these days the predators are not wolves or bears. They are something else entirely.

Once humans had established dominance as a species through their group hunting activity, their range of natural predators declined catastrophically. Even other animals that hunt in groups, such as wolves, would not take on a human group. Humans became (and still are) the most feared predators on earth. But in their subconscious minds, humans are still prey. They are still driven by fear, still looking out for predators. And when a species that is expecting there to be predators finds there are none, it invents them. Humans have created two sorts of "imaginary" predator: hungry gods, who have to be placated with animal or human sacrifice (just as herd animals will relax once a predator has made a kill), and - most distressingly of all - other groups of humans. We are now our own predators.

Down the centuries, we have acted out our fear of predation through religious ritual. Christianity proclaims that predation is now ended because of the sacrifice of one very high-status individual. The hungry god has supposedly been satisfied for all time by being fed someone who was more than human. But that doesn't stop churches demanding offerings of money with threats of divine retribution if the faithful don't pay up. So perhaps the god isn't entirely satisfied after all. Sacrifice comes in many forms! Many other religions also rely on various forms of sacrifice or offering to keep the hungry predator at bay. This strikes me as a fairly harmless sublimation of the fear response (I know many atheists would disagree with me, but please bear with me while I follow this through) and even helpful if it prevents regression to the more dangerous form of predator-invention. Sadly, though, too often religions have actually encouraged the formation of other predator-substitutes - namely, groups of humans that have invented DIFFERENT hungry gods. And these groups have fought each other to the death over their conflicting beliefs.

The process of predator-invention leads humans to "dehumanize" other humans. Dehumanization of people who look different, behave differently or simply occupy land that we want allows us to justify all manner of barbaric treatment of them. But underneath it all is fear - fear that the other group will take our land, our food, our jobs, our children, our lives. In other words, we see the group that we dehumanize as a predator - and as humans have done for millenia, we attack it before it attacks us. Much of the rhetoric from extreme racists today contains fear-attack language.

When humans attack other humans that they see as potential or actual predators (and let's be completely clear here - a thief, or a rapist, or a murderer IS a predator), they often do so brutally. Our fear leads us not only to want to tear the other apart, but to disfigure, humiliate and demean them - to break their power over us, not only by killing them but by destroying the power of their image in our minds. The desire to humiliate and demean can even override the desire to destroy: slavery initially came about as a means of demeaning vanquished foes and breaking their power, though it later acquired a much more commercial objective.

Today, we see fear everywhere. And consequently we are seeing "dehumanization" of particular groups. "The rich" (unspecified) are castigated for greed and threatened with asset-stripping. "Bankers" are universally reviled as criminals who should be locked up or even (as I saw in a recent tweet) beheaded. And at the other end of the scale, sick & disabled people are demonized in the tabloid press as "scroungers". This last is particularly unpleasant, because strident calls for impoverishment of sick & disabled people have been heard by government, and it is therefore busy dismantling social provision for some of the most vulnerable in our society. I do not like the way this is going. One of the strengths of human society has been its willingness to care for those who can't care for themselves: it is an important part of the "glue" that holds human groups together. Once we start dehumanizing those whom we formerly loved and cared for, we lose much of our cohesiveness - and, I would argue, our humanity. The breakup of the former Yugoslavia was characterised by dehumanization of people from different races and religions; the result was brutalisation and murder of people who had previously been neighbours and friends.

But more insidiously, many of the fear-driven beliefs and practices of earlier ages are returning, dressed up in modern clothes. The government appears to be willing to sacrifice ordinary people and businesses on the altar of austerity to placate the hungry gods of the bond markets. But are the bond markets really predators - or are they just scared people terrified of losing their wealth? And the financial sector is very evidently looking after itself at the expense of the rest of the economy - and a scared government is openly helping it to do this. It is perhaps less like a predator than a parasite. But it, too, is made up of people - people who are losing their jobs by the thousand and are terrified of a complete meltdown of their industry. There are even more scared people in government, bond markets and banking than there are in the real economy. And that is the most terrifying thing of all.

Frightened humans are very, very dangerous to other humans. As I noted above, fear overrides normal rational thinking, replacing it with automated responses from a much earlier age. Those responses now are likely to be highly inappropriate. Fear leads people to do stupid things. A government full of frightened people does not bode well for good management of the economy, let alone compassionate treatment of the poorer and weaker members of society. And a financial sector full of frightened people could cause serious damage to the economy: people with wealth desperately trying to protect it, rather than using it productively to benefit both themselves and society as a whole, which is how investment normally works. There is a deep divide and antagonism developing between the financial sector and the real economy: ordinary people see the financial sector as parasitic, and the financial sector increasingly sees ordinary people as thieves. This is incredibly dangerous.

Let us remember that we are human. We can think - we do not have to be driven by instinctive drivers from an earlier age. We can love - we do not have to discard those who can't provide for themselves. And we can choose - we do not have to placate hungry gods (or bond markets). And above all, we can remember that humans owe their success to their ability to co-operate for mutual benefit. Fear drives wedges between people and ultimately destroys society. It is imperative that we learn to override our fear drivers and act rationally, even when apparently faced with extreme danger. For if we do not, our fears will become reality.


  1. The purpose of governments is to protect a group from predators by securing borders. Has Earth got natural borders, or lines drawn by Statesmen? Lest we forget, last century States littered Earth with nuclear weapons - that would not seem to me to be a ringing endorsement of States.

    To ask, of what indispensible but definable element(s) does my (legal?) legitimacy spring forth from is to consider an “important role” of the technocratic Universe in the 21st century. Does acquiring a State issued passport recreate a person’s freeborn legitimacy through a politicised and thus more authoritative form, for example, or does as much or even more authority simply stem from already being a valued member of the humane society concerned, and so precede certain formalities? If not, and States do indeed remain absolutely “necessary…to provide a…definition of rights”, then what awaits our political Universe, divided as it is between a plethora of States, who amongst themselves compete through physical exclusion to insulate their most favoured ideologies from differing points of view?

    1. I said, did I not, that the predators now are ourselves? States protect their borders from other states. The definition of a state boundary is entirely political.

  2. To deal more kindly with one another:

  3. Unfortunately the hugeness of society in modernity makes it easier to dehumanise our fellow humans.

    However humans in modernity have fluctuated between relatively benign periods, and ones of mass dehumanisation and ultimately terror and genocide.

    I tend to lean toward the idea that the terror emerges out of economic calamity. We do not fall into dehumanisation with full bellies, rising prosperity and functioning social institutions.

    Ideologically I am something of a libertarian, but trying to dismantle the social welfare system during an economic depression as some kind of belt-tightening offering to the Gods is a road to utter, utter ruin.

    1. I agree. It's impossible to dismantle the welfare-State unless a serious commitment exists to care for the disadvantaged through voluntary charity on the basis of corporations. It would serve their long term intests, I think.

    2. Alister, you've missed Aziz's point. Aziz was alluding to my remarks in the post about the propensity of humans to sacrifice other humans to placate angry gods - in this case the "god" of the bond markets.

      But I disagree with you anyway. There has never been a serious commitment to care for the disadvantaged on the part of corporations. The patchy and inconsistent nature of voluntary provision is the reason why we have a welfare state. How replacing a comprehensive system with a patchy one is is in the long-term interests of the disadvantaged is beyond me. It would be in the interests of those who have wealth, though, since they would no longer be obliged to contribute towards the wellbeing of others. I don't think that rebalancing the state to benefit those who have wealth at the expense of the disadvantaged is progress, frankly.

    3. Sorry, it was not my intention to speak on behalf of anybody other than myself! The important point here is to note that markets finance governments. Governments do not finance markets. People do not pay taxes to finance the marketplace, I presume you would agree, and a market outside of government provided goods and services does exist, and it is a considerably larger and more important supplier than markets internal to governments. In fact, even markets within governments which wind up servicing basic needs for the poor and provided for by the private sector. The government does not produce food for food stamps, for example. As you may note if you watch this brief interview of Harvard professor John Ruggy, corporations share in a co-operative relationship with all members of society, directly or indirectly, whether they realise so or not.

      Point is, we are all in this together. A stronger society is better for all. No intelligent CEO will want to serve an impoverished mass.

    4. I don't agree, actually. Government debt these days is essential to the smooth running of financial markets - so much so that if there isn't enough of it, the finance industry has been known to lobby government to produce more. You need to see government debt not as a means of financing but as a tradeable good, which is much more how it behaves.

    5. For some time, some things are essential, and then they are not. Just because certain types of government debt now behave like a tradeable good does not mean that they always will. Value is in the eye of the beholder.

    6. We really can't cast economic policy on the basis of ifs, buts and maybes. We have to deal with things as they are, and the fact is that at the moment the power distribution between markets and developed-world governments is pretty symmetrical. Governments want money, markets want safe collateral. It's a wash.

      The exception of course is the peripheral Eurozone countries, but then they don't have their own currencies, have no control of monetary policy and it is beginning to be evident that their sovereignty is compromised. Personally I wouldn't regard the debt of Eurozone countries as of the same quality as the debt of sovereign currency-issuing countries, and it seems that (with the exception of Germany) markets don't regard it as equivalent either.

    7. Ifs, buts and maybe's is all we ever had. Nothing is absolutely certain. Nobel Prize Winning Physicist Richard Feynman realised this, as do many other people. I'm suppose you're starting to notice that the...models are beginning to no longer work.

      No individual or group of people, government or private sector, or even some combination of both, can know everything about "things as they are". There is not even any serious way in which to measure "power distribution". A feature of your thinking, here, seems to be that power should be conceived of in positivist terms...that something directly observable and measurable...while paying little attention to points that contradict this apparently sacrosanct thesis. For example, the fact that a refusal to act upon a request may itself constitute a source of manifest though scarcely measurable power is presumably just dismissed as not meaningful.

    8. If I were "paying little attention to points that contradict this apparently sacrosanct thesis" I would hardly be discussing with you on this post, would I?

      Why should your "ifs, buts and maybes" be acted on in preference to mine? Why should your ideology trump mine? It is no more certain.

    9. Sorry, Frances, to be honest I just lifted those words straight from an essay I am writing for uni at the moment. Probably had no place in this conversation, that "little attention" comment. My bad. Ideology? Mine? I certainly hope I do not have one! And if I do I assure you I'm not trying to convince you about any "track" of thinking. Just voicing my thoughts on one of the best blogs I know...

    10. You do have an ideology. You just don't recognise it as one, that's all.

    11. I am pragmatic. Write a post persuading me that debt is key to growth going forward in the West and I will simply admit to your being right. I wouldn't say that you have an ideology, because for starters we might not even agree on a definition. See my point? It's going around in circles. But most important of all, it good to realise that you can't know what a person is thinking. You, Frances, cannot say 'what I am' with any degree of certainty, just like I could not label you in any type of absolute way. Squeezing complex, human personalities into one or two words will not generally to the person concerned the proper degree of respect....Best wishes!

    12. I have an ideology. Of course I do. So do you. We are humans, and humans are ideological creatures. We don't know everything, and we plug the gaps with beliefs.

      So if I "write a post persuading you...." I am already up against not only your pragmatism but your ideology. If you believe that debt is FUNDAMENTALLY bad (a value judgement) then you will be very, very reluctant to agree that debt may be the key to growth. You may admit that there could be some limited application in exceptional circumstances - the lesser of two evils - but your general position will still be "we shouldn't have debt" (note the value judgement again), so you will want any debt we do take on to be paid off as quickly as possible even at the expense of suffering among the general population. For you to shift from this position would require what amounts to a religious conversion.

  4. Your blog surpasses itself this time by covering anthropology, evolutionary biology, religion, psychology, sociology & even a bit of economics ;-)

    I think you've hit the nail on the head in identifying fear as a huge driver of individual & collective behaviour. There is clearly an evolutionary advantage to having an over-sensitive fear response versus having an under-sensitive one. However, our environment (physical & social) has evolved far faster than our soggy, carbon-based, programmed-by-genes bodies have been able to.

    Much of the fear response is now redundant or perhaps even an evolutionary disadvantage? It's worth remembering that evolution didn't end with Darwin, it's still continuing to this day and environmental adaptation is one of the driving processes (alongside random mutation and survival of the fittest).

    I think we also have moved into a phase of human evolution whereby the group/tribe/organisation is starting to take on a life of it's own.

    Religion as you pointed out is a potent force - it's an idea (known as a meme) which carries with it information (the basic tenets of the religion) in much the same way a gene carries with it the basic blueprint for your body.

    The similarities are compelling, a gene (also known as one's genotype) expresses itself as one's phenotype (your actual body and it's abilities). Similarly a meme expresses itself as a phenotype, in our religion example the expression is the actual organised church & the activities it's followers perform.

    The only difference between genes and memes is that whilst genes exist on a substrate of amino acids (DNA), memes exist in the minds of human beings.

    Evolution of genes is a slow process - a person's genes mix with another during reproduction which is often only a handful of times over a 50 year period. Each reproduction mixes genes, takes on some random mutations then leaves the phenotype to the ravishes of the real world and survival of the fittest.

    Evolution of memes happens at a far greater pace and across a far larger number of participants for each generation of the meme. As someone famous once said, bad news can be half way around the world before good news is out of bed pulling it's trousers on. To reproduce, a meme simply needs to be transmitted - and we've spent the last hundred years building incredibly efficient & far reaching communications systems to do just that.

    The various groups of humans you described are incredibly efficient at allowing the transmission of memes and are very good at filtering those memes that their psychological biases like or dislike. For example, a white-supremacist is far more likely to spread news about an African murdering a white European than he is to spread news of white European murdering an African.

    This I believe is the origin of mob mentality and I've seen it written that "a person is smart; people are dumb".

    I think it's the "mob" (or group, or team, or tribe or organisation...) that is expressing it's fast-evolving memes as this rapid rise of fear driven actions. I suspect memes that induce fear are likely to spread faster as their substrate, the human brain, responds to fear in a disproportionate way as you rightly pointed out.


  5. (continued from my previous rambling comment...)

    Where will it all end is a question we often ask ourselves, here's a few scenarios I can foresee:-

    1) One or two powerful memes win out and the followers of those subjugate/oppress/destroy the non-followers so rapidly that the non-followers become extinct.

    2) There's a sufficient human evolutionary disadvantage to having strong fear reactions to memes that "survival of the fittest" becomes in this case "survival of those who don't panic"

    3) It continues for hundreds of years in an ebb and flow of good ideas followed by bad ideas followed by good ideas in much the same way it has for the last 2 or so millennia.

    4) Our ability, through communications technology, to transmit & evolve bad memes - memes that cause us to behave in a harmful way - increases with efficiency and speed to such a point that we end up with a hegemony of fear driven violence that has spread so fast that we wipe ourselves out - the classic Mutually Assured Destruction scenario.

    I'm currently reading "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by David Kahneman ( ) in which the author describes the latest research into why we have psychological biases, why we are terrible at risk assessment and I guess of most interest to you, how this is wired into fear responses.

    It's well worth a read and it isn't steeped too deep in the academia of psychology to make it unreadable by the lay-person.

    Thanks for a thought provoking blog.

  6. The point is Angst. Fear helps us to survive. What you described is angst. The difference.

    Angst is created today by government, media, finance system, industries advertising,... - the usual suspects.

    Eagerness for example is a result from angst. Going to work and having fun in order to have something to eat tomorrow is a result from fear. Doing the same in case you have a few 100k money on the savings account is a result from angst. Ok, today it's about fear:), times change.

    The state and the finance system make humans function to the materialistic world view by imposing a feeling of guilt on them - a way to create angst, negative irrational fear of not having enough tomorrow - not working for money and not buying more would be something evil. Now the finance system is victim of it's own strategy. Thank god he is doing the bankers work:) and it will never work the other way around.

  7. I like this blog and would agree that a lot of human behaviour is driven by instinctive fear. To me, the most important point you seem to be making Frances, relates to the fact that we elect and pay our Politicians and do not expect them to be making decisions based on instinct rather than research, consultation and careful thought. I too am appalled at the Government's callous attitude to the vulnerable members of our Society. The Government's proposed spending cuts in this area will certainly cause a lot of human misery, but I do not believe that money will be saved except in the very short term. Politicians have failed to consult properly and listen.

    I am now retired but spent my working life in Social Care. The current expensive witch hunt to find people claiming benefits they are not entitled to will, in my opinion, cost more money than it saves. These checks have already been made at the point when people claim benefits and at intervals afterwards. Also, I know from experience that if benefits are properly checked, it will be found that an unbelievable number of claimants do not in fact claim their full entitlement. It is also pointless to spend tax payers money in trying to drive people with disabilities into a job market where there are few opportunities for them.

    Cutting funding intended to help people stay in their homes (eg Disability Living Allowance)would inevitably result in more need for Residential Care which is mostly massively more expensive. When people are allowed to reach a situation of extreme crisis, there is often no other alternative.

    Cutting Housing Benefit would inevitably cause increased homelessness. Current legislation decrees that accommodation must be provided for vulnerable people so it is not possible to leave children, elderly people etc. sleeping on the street. This accommodation will be far more costly than the saved Housing Benefit payments.

    Cutting benefits to families already under financial pressure would cause intolerable stress leading to increased frequency of Mental Health problems in adults and children, family breakdown, offending behaviour, domestic violence etc. etc. This would result in enforced greater Government spending.

    Politicians need to accept that, like all of us, their own life experience is limited. They need to put aside their own instinctive fears and limited views and actually listen to those who have relevant knowledge.